Miles Cameron argues for another way
Violence isn’t the answer, argues author Miles Cameron. Mellow vibes, man.
If you know me, or read my books, it may seem odd that I’m writing a rant about the role of violence in speculative fiction. I love to write about many aspects of violence; I like to read about military campaigns; I reenact; and I teach various forms of martial arts, including fighting in medieval armour. I personally find violence fascinating. I spent years in the military, and I have some hands on experience of the whole thing, from logistics and politics to dropping bombs to clandestine operations. In our modern world, most speculative fiction readers would probably agree that violence is not the only way to solve complex issues, perhaps even agree that it is the very worst way. And yet it seems to me that an awful lot of speculative fiction revolves around violence, and that the violence lacks affect; that is, it sometimes kills characters, but it rarely (for example) maims them and leaves them to live lonely, bitter lives far from their expectations.
We don’t have many science fiction books written about refugees, or widows, or about grieving parents. (Warchild, by Karen Lowachee, was excellent, and so was the immortal Downbelow Station by CJ Cheryh. Iain M Banks tackled many of these issues in his books too.) But all too often we enjoy the violence in speculative fiction for itself, much in the way that pornography celebrates sex by itself, without context or consequence. This following example will suffice to explain my angst: in the whole of the Star Wars canon, does a Jedi Knight ever say “We need to find a negotiator” or “Can we get a truce patched together?” Their solution is always the lightsaber.
The last four years have been a trying time politically, at least for me. The various faces of terrorism and the refugee crisis; the environment; the rebirth of the far right, especially in my backyard; the world of reenactment and martial arts, where attachment to “history” and “heritage” have become codes for darker messages. In this world, I worry – as a writer of speculative fiction – that fictional worlds that portray stories of “Good” vs “Evil” and offer violence and other simple solutions to simple, artificial, problems may be a contributor to the very political problems that we’re witnessing.
It’s not just that war is bad. War is very bad, but it’s especially bad for characters who do not have agency. For knights and fighter pilots, there is a risk of death or maiming, but there is most definitely a sense of sport, a perception of control, and more so for statesmen and women who call the shots, and legendary magic users and sword jocks across the genres. But this is less so for a man whose family has been destroyed by civil war, or a woman who’s been stripped of all her possessions and turned out as a refugee; she may have had her life destroyed by a war she never asked for, by two sides whom she loathes equally…. Look at Syria. Or people who lived in late medieval Europe.
And again, real war has depths of complexity and stupidity that we see brilliantly in, for example, Tolstoy’s War And Peace and too seldom in modern speculative fiction; shades of grey, and not just grim, dark grey; conflicts that refuse to end; the bankruptcy of states; the collapse of civil societies.
I’m not suggesting an end to war and violence in speculative fiction; merely an end to the enjoyment of affectless violence as an end to itself. Otherwise, I fear we are training a generation of readers to believe that war is the answer.
“wAr hAS A COmpLExITY ThAT’S SELDOm IN mODErN FICTION”
Cold Iron by Miles Cameron is out 30 August from Gollancz.
Conflict shouldn’t always be solved by using a sword.